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By Fred Dickey

March 17, 2014

There is no “Shazam!” in recovering from family tragedy. Alter ego Billy Batson doesn’t magically become Captain Marvel in a family crisis. He remains just a guy who’s got to slog it out.

Neither have there been magic words for Richard and Tabitha Meza.

The Mezas live in a lower-cost, two-bedroom apartment with their two college-student sons in Chula Vista. It’s cramped and plain, but even so is barely within their budget. Uninviting as those quarters are, Richard and Tabitha are mainly housebound. None of this is by choice.

Richard, 56, is confined to his chair much of the time while recovering from knee surgery, and recover he will. Not so for Tabitha. She is confined to a wheelchair as the result of four strokes and three brain-tumor surgeries. That’s prison for a mentally energetic woman of 59.

Richard fights through his own pain and hobbles around on crutches to nurse his wife in everything from dressing, to eating, to going to the bathroom.

Living with them are their two handsome sons, Richie, 24, and Isaiah, 22. They attend college, work full time, help out financially and are attentive to their mother. A daughter, Ashly, 29, who lives in Eastlake with her family, also helps at times with her mom.

The sons are quiet and polite. My guess is they are young men to brag about. Of course, they could go wild when out Friday night with their buds, but I doubt it. You generally can tell.

Tabitha’s right side is paralyzed, and she has function only in her left arm and hand. Her speech is slurred and barely audible. But still she struggles to make herself heard, though the effort must be the equivalent of vocal weightlifting. After a few minutes of forcing words out, she sags back, then shortly recovers and attempts to rejoin a conversation.

Something to admire about Tabitha is that I did not once see her without a smile. Given the disparity in our health, I will feel guilty every time I’m grumpy, at least for a few days.

Tabitha lived uneventfully until 1989, when she underwent two brain surgeries for benign tumors. However, cutting into the brain is not like a one-and-done appendectomy. Aftereffects hang around. After her surgeries, Tabitha began to suffer grand mal seizures, and that led to a third operation in 1993 that seemed to help on the seizures.

Richard became an evangelical minister as a young man. He has pastored three churches, all small, struggling congregations. To pay the bills, he worked as a technical consultant for a company that serviced lubrication equipment for gas stations and quick-lube operations. In 1994, the family bought a home in Chula Vista. In 1995, he started his own business servicing lubrication pumps. The Mezas settled into the comfort of middle-class life. While it lasted.

Over the next 15 years, Tabitha suffered four strokes, each one more enervating than the previous. She has also had to deal with “silent seizures” that suddenly deprive her of balance and even awareness of her surroundings.

Her growing debility required more attention from Richard and the kids. Richard was compelled to put his wife’s health first, and that hurt his business. And that led to bankruptcy and the loss of their home. The nexus of all those things roughly shoved Richard into depression. His self-medication was lots of junk food.

In four years, from ’07 through ’11, he gained 380 pounds and reached 640 pounds. Fortunately, he was a nondrinker; otherwise, the problems during his depression could have gone beyond what a diet could fix.

Richard learned that it’s easier to fall into a hole than to climb out. At this point, Richard may not rank very high in your estimation, and that’s understandable because he dropped the ball on family duty. But in life, we all do things that won’t make our highlights film.

How is it that a man gorges on junk food for several years, then wakes up one morning weighing 640 pounds, and that day decides to turn his life around? Richard says it was seeing his wife break down sobbing and cry out, “Why is this happening to us?” That was his “Shazam!” moment.

From that day, driven by a nagging guilt about his shortcomings as a husband, he has lost 260 pounds in a little over two years on a draconian diet, and is determined to reach his goal weight of 225.

Richard has made weight loss the focus of his renewed resolve to be the man of the house — “man” representing all the stewardship that goes with a husband’s role. “I no longer eat anything with sugar or with starch,” he says. “I’ve lost all these pounds without exercising. Now that my knee is fixed, I will lose the rest of the weight.”

You’re a minister. Do you rely on prayer?

“Every day. Every day.”

He is inactive as a pastor but does occasional consulting in the lubrication business. At best, that’s an on-and-off thing. He knows he can’t hold down full-time work because of Tabitha’s needs. Someone has to be with her constantly, and the sons will soon be going off to follow their own lives.

Though Tabitha’s disability makes her seem the most needy, it’s her willpower that’s been the glue and the prod of the family.

When Richard was going through his stuff, Tabitha kept encouraging him to snap out of it, using both sweet talk and tough talk. She, of course, had her own stuff to deal with.

Looking back at Richard’s dark time, she haltingly describes her insecurities during that period. “If he was gone, I wondered what would happen to me. A couple of times, I was put in a nursing home (by doctors), and that was a terrible thing. My husband took me out because it was so awful.”

Richard says, “Even though she couldn’t express all her emotions, she was resentful that I seemed to just give up. She was disappointed with me, and she felt guilty because of her condition and the fact we’d lost everything.”

Tabitha pushes words out one at a time, quickly tiring with the effort, but keeps pushing. “We realized (strife) wasn’t going to get us anywhere. We both worked on trying to recover. I tried to recover from my strokes, tried to get better, and that’s all I could do.

“Even though the doctors tell me I’m not going to walk again, I’m asking God to help me to walk. In my heart, I tell God, ‘I want to walk.’ ”

Richard says, with admiration, “She’s overcome all these strokes, all these tumors. We were told she was going to die, and her response was, ‘I’m going to walk. I’m going to walk. I’m going to walk, and by the way, I’d like some See’s candy.’ ” He laughs, then says, “She’s the most courageous person I know.”

He explains Tabitha’s speech challenge. “For example, you and I, we see a cup of coffee, so we say, ‘Give me that cup of coffee.’ It’s easy for us. But for Tabitha, she’ll say, ‘Give me that—’ and she can’t pronounce the final word.”

Tabitha nods. “When that happens, I don’t know what to say. I want to say something, but the word goes away. I can’t talk. My brain goes off, and I have little — what is it called?” She shakes her head in exasperation. “See?”

Richard answers. “Ability to comprehend”

Tabitha nods. “Yes, comprehend.”

She says, “When I’m alone ... and I have time to think, that’s when I start to pray, and I ask for God to take care of my husband, and my children, and I’m going to walk.”

Richard enumerates their monthly budget, and it’s a grim tally. He is paid $1,200 from the county as Tabitha’s caregiver, she gets $925 from Supplemental Security Income, and he makes only $200 or $300 from his consulting work. Their rent was just increased to $1,480 a month.

“We have to scrounge to pay the rent, and we’re constantly late. I apologize and pay the late charge. Somehow, we make ends meet.”

Having been a businessman, does it bother you to be on public assistance?

The question makes Richard a little defensive. “I paid taxes all my life, and now that I need help — thank you very much.”

He says, “We believe that one way or another, one day, God willing, we’ll have a house again.”

It would be nice if the future finds the Meza family once again in their own home. However, I know where the couple will not be found: in divorce court.

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